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The Conspiracy Artist

Geoffrey K. Pullum
"He doesn't trust us."
09/24/09 at 09:00

With the help of Boris's remarks about Dan Brown's aspirant didacticism, I think I have figured out what is so awful about his overuse of pre-head modifiers. It has to do with trust. Boris is right: Dan longs to teach us. But there is a downside to being in his class.

Consider the episode in chapter 47 where (plot spoiler coming!) Katherine Solomon is being chased around by an evildoer who cannot find her inside a gigantic pitch-dark warehouse. The attacker suddenly spots the faint glow of her cell phone at about waist height and hurls himself at it with arms wide apart — absolutely certain of where she is, and convinced that he will be able to grab her. And as a result he injures himself very painfully. His head crashes into a steel beam and he collapses to the floor with a cry of pain. Dan describes what happens next thus:

Cursing, he clambered back to his feet, pulling himself up by the waist-high, horizontal strut on which Katherine Solomon had cleverly placed her open cell phone.

Cleverly. Dan just couldn't resist explaining that to us. Could we not have realized — had he merely said the phone was on a wall strut — that the phone would be open? (We were explicitly told two pages earlier that it glowed only when open.) Could we not also have figured out that the strut must have been about waist-high, and horizontal (so the phone could be placed on it, you see)? And that Katherine (whose surname is still Solomon, as it had been on previous pages), the only other person in the warehouse with the evildoer, had placed it there? And (above all) that she had acted cleverly by doing this?

The problem is that Dan has no confidence in us. He regards us as too dim-witted to see any of these things. That is what makes it so maddening.

E. B. White (among others) was quite wrong to claim that it is simply bad writing to use adjectives. It isn't. (How can we even talk about bad writing without putting the adjective bad before the noun writing?) It was never about that. It isn't the adjectives or the adverbs themselves. What's awful about Dan's overuse of pre-posed modifiers is that he is treating us as if we were about as intellectually well equipped as a sack of potting soil. He steers us around with his modifiers because he dare not leave us alone to form our own mental pictures of what is happening.

Boris is right — Dan yearns to be a teacher. But not like a teacher of linguistics to independent and intelligent students (and yes, Boris, the University of Edinburgh is much blessed with such students). It is kindergarten that he teaches: We are as little children, and it is story time, and he must tell us everything about what happened.

He's a control freak, and he doesn't trust us.